[Hpn] Bill would ban night panhandling;Baltimore Sun;6/27/01
Morgan W. Brown
Wed, 27 Jun 2001 17:17:01 -0400
Wednesday, June 27, 2001
The Baltimore Sun
Bill would ban night panhandling
Advocates for poor fear measure backed by business group
By Scott Calvert
Originally published June 27, 2001
Fred Rotunno often sees familiar faces out on
Albemarle Street: the man supposedly raising
funds for youth basketball; a mother and daughter
who say they need bus fare; an old man who just
wants spare change, no reasons given.
"They know when we get busy," Rotunno, general
manager of Vaccaro's Italian Pastry Shop, said on
a recent busy weeknight in Little Italy. "There's
nothing we can do."
That may change. At the request of the Downtown
Partnership business group, City Councilman
Nicholas C. D'Adamo Jr. is sponsoring a bill to
ban panhandling in Baltimore after dark - an idea
that pleases the business community but alarms
civil libertarians and advocates for the poor.
"We want to make the streets safer at night, so
people are not afraid to go to Little Italy at night to
dine or to Fells Point to barhop," said D'Adamo, a
Southeast Baltimore Democrat.
The city already forbids "aggressive" panhandling,
defined under a 1994 law to include touching, continuously asking for money,
blocking the way or using obscene language. Begging is unlawful in traffic
and near cash machines.
But D'Adamo's proposal would go further, with an outright ban after dark -
mirroring an effort nationwide to crack down on panhandling.
"There is a growing groundswell of feeling among some civic groups and
communities that community rights have been getting short shrift," said
Johannes Galley, senior attorney at the New York-based Center for the
Community Interest, which supports laws against panhandling.
The Downtown Partnership says the restrictions, if enacted, would make
workers, residents and visitors feel safer after dark and target those who
"make a living" panhandling and are not truly homeless. People still could
quietly hold a sign away from traffic.
But advocates for the homeless doubt the need for a tougher law. They say a
ban on nighttime panhandling would ensnare homeless people stuck on the
street in part because shelters are crowded. A first offense could lead to a
$100 fine and 30 days in jail.
"Until we provide the shelters and services that are needed for homeless
people in this city, these sorts of laws will always catch homeless people
in their net," said J. Peter Sabonis, executive director of the Homeless
Persons Representation Project, which provides legal services to Baltimore's
homeless. Even a misdemeanor conviction can make it difficult to get a job
or subsidized housing, he said.
Since police reconstituted a squad in January to combat panhandling at the
Inner Harbor, 74 people have been arrested on misdemeanor charges,
officials say. In Indianapolis, by contrast, police issue civil citations
similar to parking tickets to aggressive panhandlers .
One expert who tracks legal cases involving the homeless understands the
goal, but foresees possible abuses by police. "It gives them one more reason
to ask people what they're doing on the street," said Jerome E. Deise, an
associate professor at the University of Maryland School of Law.
Courts across the country have largely upheld laws against aggressive
begging, despite claims that the bans violate First Amendment free speech
Suzanne Smith, the American Civil Liberties Union's legislative director in
Maryland, says a ban such as that proposed under the D'Adamo bill would
restrict speech rather than behavior.
Taken to its logical conclusion, Smith said, a businessman asking for
parking meter money at night could be arrested.
But Smith fears that police would focus on beggars, raising another concern:
"If you are singling out categories of people, that's equally problematic
because you're not treating people in an equitable way."
Another issue is the bill's use of the word "panhandling," which caused
problems with Baltimore's original law. After a legal challenge, the law was
changed to target all aggressive "soliciting" and not just "panhandling."
The city official in charge of drafting bills, Avery Aisenstark, director of
legislative reference, said he proposed "panhandling" to avoid confusion
with existing laws on business-related soliciting.
Promoters of downtown Baltimore stress the need for new restrictions.
"The goal is not to chase poor people out of downtown; it is to make sure
the economic health of downtown is protected," said Michele L. Whelley,
president of the Downtown Partnership. "The economic health comes from
employees and visitors feeling comfortable and walking the streets. When you
are being approached by a stranger at night, that is in itself aggressive."
She added, "We're targeting people who basically make a living from
At the same time, the Downtown Partnership stresses the need for improved
services for the city's homeless. Whelley supports additional crisis beds
and more outreach teams at night, and touts her group's involvement in the
Hands In Partnership outreach initiative.
The council won't take up the bill for weeks. Mayor Martin O'Malley has not
formed an opinion, but has doubts about a ban, said spokesman Tony White.
"He is adamant that if the police and homeless services work better
together, they would be able to help more people rather than just banning
panhandling," White said. "Because that doesn't solve the problem. It may
make some people more comfortable, but it doesn't solve the problem."
Panhandlers oppose the bill.
"I don't think it's right, because a lot of people are trying to survive the
best way they know how," said George W. Carter, who was trying to coax
change from a couple in a convertible at Conway and South Charles streets.
His cup held just 45 cents.
Carter, who says he's homeless and 42, is breaking the law when he
approaches cars with his cardboard sign. He said police sometimes tell him
to leave or arrest him; he said a tougher law would make it harder to get
money for food. He can't live with his family, he said, and the shelter is
dangerous. He said he's been applying for fast-food and janitorial jobs but
his lack of a fixed address has hurt.
Panhandlers have always been fixtures on the urban landscape. And Sabonis
acknowledges that some are con artists who tell the same sad story over and
One recent night at the Inner Harbor, Lynn Miller and Paul Woods
encountered a panhandler whom they described as "very polite." Panhandling
is "a big city fact of life," said Miller, who lives in Montgomery County.
For Rotunno, though, a dusk-to-dawn ban would be welcome. Despite some
recent improvement, panhandlers often greet customers in front of Vaccaro's,
especially on weekends.
"What's worse than tourists coming in, loving the city and getting asked,
'Do you have any money?'" Rotunno said. "It's embarrassing."
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Morgan W. Brown
Montpelier Vermont USA
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